The Real Thing represents a key part of Tom Stoppard’s ongoing interest in the nature of performance and theatricality. With its scenes of plays within the framework of the larger play, Stoppard, born Tomas Straussler, plays with the expectation and the perception of reality by both the characters and the audience. The play is also notable for being able to use this experimentation with a fairly conventional plot line. Stoppard confounds expectations by presenting a domestic dramatic narrative with the kind of theatrical experimentation seen in some of his earlier work, such as The Real Inspector Hound (pr., pb. 1968; one act).
The Real Thing also remains one of Stoppard’s most popular and accessible works, with little of the historical and literary references that mark some of his other plays, such as The Invention of Love (pr., pb. 1997) and The Coast of Utopia (pr., pb. 2002). The emotional and possibly autobiographical nature of the play, with the main character being a playwright, also has been a source of interest for critics.
The central question of the play is reflected in the play’s title. In the postmodern world, what is, if anything, the real thing? Characters grapple with commitment, responsibility, and prevailing moral codes in an effort to navigate a world in which meaning is relative. One of the chief institutions under examination is marriage. Henry and Charlotte have broken their matrimonial vows, but little weight is given to the vows, beyond their personal responsibility to each other. Charlotte even remarks that marriage is more like a bargain than a promise. Annie’s devotion to Max is rather thin, and she is able to get over their relationship quickly, despite Max’s protestations. In a conversation with his daughter Debbie, Henry talks about the mystery of sex while Debbie is frank and realistic about it.
The play also explores public responsibility through Annie’s efforts to secure Brodie’s release from prison. The motives behind her campaign are constantly in question. Annie’s ambiguity also mirrors her unstable relationships, with both Max and Henry suffering the consequences of her infidelity. At times, Annie seems to value her campaign for Brodie more than her relationships with people. At other times, she shirks her civic and social responsibilities in favor of her latest fling. Her wavering represents the problem of instability presented by a postmodern world. However, Stoppard does not pass judgment, but leaves it up to the audience to critique his characters’ actions.
The role of the artist is also under scrutiny. Henry is continuously dealing with conflicting roles of public artist and private aficionado. He agonizes about whether his list for Desert Island Discs is too pedestrian and is reluctant to...
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